Andrew Flint –
Ever since Australia decided to leave the Oceana Football Confederation (OFC) in 2006 in search of a greater challeng, and a clearer shot at World Cup qualification, New Zealand have become a much more relevant side on the international scene. For a nation of just 4 million people whose primary sporting interests are rugby union and cricket, their record of two FIFA World Cup finals appearances, and what will be their fourth Confederations Cup campaign this summer in Russia is impressive.
While they are yet to win a single match in any of those tournaments, their showing in South Africa in 2010 raised eyebrows as they exited the World Cup without losing a game, including a 1-1 draw against the reigning champions Italy. They are on course to return to Russia next summer for the flagship event having made it through to the OFC Final—the winner of which will face a two-legged playoff against the 5th-placed CONMEBOL side for a slot in the 2018 finals—and would arrive as relative unknown quantities despite their flashes of international success.
Amongst their warmups for the Confederations Cup this summer they visited Northern Ireland and were very unfortunate not to earn a result against a side enjoying a renaissance in recent years. Michael O’Neill’s hosts were admittedly under strength as they conserved some of their senior players in anticipation of their World Cup Qualifier away to Azerbaijan in June, but the physical presence of English Championship top goalscorer Chris Wood caused problems for the home side’s defence.
At the age of 25, Wood is only nine goals off becoming his country’s all-time top scorer and is easily the highest profile member of their squad, but is not the only player with experience of European football. Eight other players called up for the Confederations Cup are currently employed in Europe, with the vast majority of the remaining members plying their trade in Australia’s Hyundai A-League. OFC player of the century Wynton Rufer is the legendary figure in All Whites football history having top scored in the 1993-94 Champions League for Werder Bremen, and while none of the current crop are likely to emulate his feats, his example serves as the inspiration.
In terms of playing style, they tend to use a back three and pack the midfield against stronger opposition, using Wood as the lone target man to lead the line. Winston Reid—a veteran of the 2010 World Cup—anchors the defence, but is out missing with a head injury. His teammate in South Africa, the topscoring currently active All White Shane Smeltz, is not a regular started but offers an experienced option to Wood. Perhaps their most creative player is Marco Rojas, of Chilean descent, who pulls the strings behind Wood and will be the key to opening opportunities.
Head Coach Anthony Hudson has been in charge for four years now, and has overseen a strong rise up the FIFA rankings to 93rd; they have been the biggest riser in the last two officially updated ranking lists this year, and come into this tournament with no pressure as rank outsiders. “I think it is important to note that we don’t play as often as many of our rivals,” Hudson said last month, “so this is a really good achievement from our team. We have long believed that we are better than our ranking suggests and we have a great chance to prove that over the next month at the Confederations Cup. Our goal in Russia is to make New Zealand proud.”
New Zealand – Opponents
The All Whites will open the tournament at the 69,000-capacity Krestovsky Stadium against the hosts Russia on 17 June, before facing Mexico in the evening heat of the Black Sea resort city of Sochi four days later. They close out their campaign back in St Petersburg on 24 June against European champions Portugal. There is next to no chance of a result in any of the three games on paper, but their hopes might lie in targeting the opening game against the hosts who may feel a touch of pressure as hosts, but might be more likely to indulge in complacency against a side they should not underestimate. Mexico have the more prestigious Gold Cup to focus on later this summer, but have some genuinely world-class talents on form, such as former Arsenal forward Carlos Vela and ex-Barcelona playmaker Giovani Dos Santos. Portugal will be led by the phenomenal Cristiano Ronaldo, who is having a golden year having won almost every honour available, and will be favourites to win group A.
New Zealand – What to Expect
New Zealand are likely to try and make life as awkward as they can for their far more illustrious opponents, and put on spirited performances to close their season. Unlike Portugal and Mexico, however, this represents the highest level of competition outside the World Cup itself, and if there is a slither of hope for them, it lies in the motivation they possess and that (or possible lack thereof) of their opposition. It is very hard to imagine anything other than three defeats, but unlike Tahiti’s record four years ago in Brazil – when the Pacific islanders conceded a whopping 24 goals and scored just once in three games – New Zealand will offer a sterner test.
New Zealand – Squad
Goalkeepers: Stefan Marinovic (Unterhaching), Tamati Williams (Waalwijk), Glen Moss (Newcastle Jets)
Defenders: Andrew Durante (Wellington Phoenix), Thomas Doyle (Wellington Phoenix), Storm Roux (Central Coast Mariners), Michael Boxall (SuperSport United), Kip Colvey (San Jose Earthquakes), Themi Tzimopoulos (Giannina), Deklan Wynne (Vancouver Whitecaps), Sam Brotherton (Sunderland), Tommy Smith (Ipswich Town), Dane Ingham (Brisbane Roar)
Midfielders: Bill Tuiloma (Marseille), Clayton Lewis (Auckland City), Michael McGlinchey (Wellington Phoenix), Ryan Thomas (PEC Zwolle)
Forwards: Chris Wood (Leeds United), Monty Patterson (Ipswich Town), Shane Smeltz (Borneo), Kosta Barbarouses (Wellington Phoenix), Marco Rojas (Melbourne Victory), Alex Rufer (Wellington Phoenix)
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football, and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.